As published at Unz Review, Smirking Chimp and CounterCurrents, 7/20/15:
I’m the first customer in the Friendly Lounge. Don, the owner, is on the phone because his cooler is acting up. “And I just got that part replaced too. When you send stuff to be made overseas, quality control just isn’t the same! Is that beer cold?”
“It’s cold enough.”
Don and his brother inherited the business from their mother. As a young man, Don worked for Mrs. Paul’s Kitchen in the Northeast. It was on Tabor Road, remember? Philadelphia used to be the frozen fish capital of the country. Packing fish sticks, filets and onion rings isn’t for everybody, so Don quit. Luckily, his mom had this bar.
Through the open door, I can see people walk to or from the Italian Market. There, they can buy discount vegetables or bags of chicken wings or ground beef. Every so often, I’d stop in Esposito’s to get my $2 loaf of scrapple. Served in both heaven’s and hell’s cafeterias, scrapple is an abjectly divine food. There are those who assume, erroneously, that they won’t have to eat any more scrapple after death, but to be human, in this or any other life, is to achieve a grimacing détente with scrapple. You can’t escape it. It’s in you. The tall guy behind the counter likes to flirt with women, so if a pretty one is in front of me, I’ll just have to wait an extra minute. Italian, he’s married to a black lady.
An old woman with a cane hovers near the bar door before entering. Its one step up is an ordeal. It’s Blanche, of course. She wears a print shirt with stars, dots and hearts, white shorts with one gaping pocket, pink socks and beige rubber clogs. On her left arm, a watch and two bandages. “I need a pretzel!” she croaks, “Will you get me a pretzel with honey mustard?”
“All right, all right,” Don mumbles as he rushes out. Half a block away is Center City Pretzel. In 2013, two gunmen tried to rob it just after midnight, but then a cop showed up to buy a pretzel. He called backup. They were arrested with $393 in a backpack. When the mafia was still pop popping away, you’d never see two black dudes try to rob an Italian business in the heart of the Italian Market. Skinny Joey, dove sei?
Ninety-one-years old, Blanche lives alone. Maybe twice a week, she shows up to ask Don to buy her a pretzel. Returning, Don gives it to Blanche and huffs, “Now, leave! You’re bothering me.”
Blanche gives Don her arm, “Will you walk me home?”
“Sure,” he answers and together they exit into the gorgeous sunlight. Jumping from my stool, I dash out after them, “Let me do it, Don!” Blanche doesn’t want me, however, but after a few steps, she’s on her own anyway. “It’s terrible,” Don says as we watch her inch down the block. She’s hardly moving. She doesn’t have very far to go. “Sometimes she shits on herself. She has nobody.”
Back inside, Don continues, “Blanche was into gambling. She loved the casino.”
“All of them.”
“Are her kids out of state?”
“No, they’re right here! They can’t be bothered. A nurse comes by twice a week.” A couple minutes later, a black nurse happens to walk past the door. “See her!” Don points. “They go from house to house. They don’t get paid shit.”
We talk about being old. I say my father has just died. Don confides that he took care of his-father-in-law for two years before the old man passed away.
“And he was difficult, too. He was losing it.”
“He picked fights with you?”
“No, with my wife. He didn’t dare do it to me, because I was taking care of him. I bathed him.”
“You baited him?!”
“No, no, I bathed him.”
“You’re a good man!” Then, “Are you religious, Don?”
“No, I haven’t gone to a church in years. I was raised Catholic. Every Saturday night, I bathed the old guy.”
“What about all the bathroom stuff.”
“Yeah, I did that too. Even my children did it. Both my son and daughter.”
“Wow, that’s incredible! How old were they?”
“My daughter was 30 and my son, 36.”
“And they were living at home?”
“My daughter was. She had just broken up with her boyfriend, and she had a kid. She was a single mom. Where else would she go? Since she wasn’t doing anything, we paid her $100 a week to take care of her granddad. It was mostly me, though. I was the one who had to shove the suppositories up his ass. By the end, his fecal matters became really pasty. Something was wrong with his liver.” To illustrate, Don clumps his fingers together, then move his hands away, as if stretching something.
“Shit doesn’t faze me,” Don continues, “I clean up shit all the time.” Don points to the bar’s rather harrowing bathroom. It has a dim, orange light, ancient fixtures and a poster for the movie, Black Snake Moan. Over the chained, buxom blonde in distress, there are some lovely graffiti, “PUT IT IN MY POOPER” next to a heart, “666” and a cross nestling in her cleavage, “¡Volar, Puto Chango!” [Fly, Fag Monkey!] next to a very crudely drawn airborne man, “LOVE IS THE ANSWER YOU KNOW THAT FOR SURE” beneath a satanic star.
“The funny thing is, the better we took care of him, the angrier he got. He said to my wife that we were just nice to him because we wanted his house. People who grew up during the Depression can get really uptight with money. He had $250,000 in the bank, but he wouldn’t spend it. He did give his church $100 a week, though.”
With his wife and grandson, Don is about to go to Ocean City, Maryland for a week. He rarely strays far from Philly. A few years ago, Don flew to Montana for a relative’s wedding. Sixty-four-years-old, he’s never been overseas. Hearing me talk about Europe once, Don said Trixie Firschke, the famous Hungarian juggler, is his great aunt.
I’m here today not to see Don but Stephanie Potter. The artistic impulse is more pervasive than one might think. In this unassuming neighborhood bar, there’s Felix the painter and sculptor, Jimmy the cook at Anastasi Seafood who also paints regularly, almost compulsively, and Tim, the lead singer for Hired Guns Blues Band. Even more than jazz, blues has collapsed into a mannerism. Stephanie, though, is a real sculptor and a real poet. She’s certainly bold and loony enough, but in a controlled way.
Born in Okinawa to Marines parents, Stephanie was raised in Fredericksburg, VA. Twenty-nine-years-old and divorced, she has no children and doesn’t want any. Stephanie studied at Maryland Institute of Art and Moore College of Art. Out of school just over a year, she works for an antiques dealer in Fishtown. Stephanie knows her stamps, coins, swords and Nazi memorabilia. Charles Murray, of Bell Curve fame, also wrote Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010. In it, Murray juxtaposes a symbolic upper class and socially intact white community against a degenerate one. The good white town is called Belmont. The crappy one is dubbed Fishtown. In the real Fishtown, however, most people have never heard of Murray or his book, so there’s no insult.
Each Thursday, Stephanie also bartends at the Friendly Lounge. In an email, I asked about her past jobs. She answered, “Many. Too many. I will try to list them all, and indeed this could be a challenge for my drug-addled mind.” Stephanie’s been a salesperson, web developer, barista/resident hipster, macrobiotic cook, wage slave at Reading Terminal Market selling vegetables and butchering alligators, farm hand, day laborer, escort, au pair, personal chef and artist-in-residence for two months in Italy. Stephanie has also “stolen change from small cups.” One day, she’d like to be a “self-sufficient housewife” and “curator.”
From a Stephanie Potter poem:
“You don’t understand. I’m a prostitute.”
Can I first illustrate to you:
this was an actual exclamation I had during a financial spat with my mother?
Was like it was never uttered.
Never considered a man’d pay to see my tits.
Come on Mom, throw me a bone.
You always said:
“Use your tools.”
Yah, I still have those breakdowns that result in: me, blowingup your phone—during work meetings. First born: mite as well be 30.
I know I look more like Andy—roundfaced, bidheaded.
At least I don’t have to draw on my eyebrows.
Maybe you wished I would’ve amounted to more but, come on.
Cum on, I’m totally commodifyable.
Have you even seen daytime tv?
Oh, rite, you’ve a job.
Rock bottom isn’t so bad, at least you can lie down.
Coming of age with the computer, Stephanie’s social life pivots around it. She’s on FaceBook, twitter, Instagram and tumblr. She was on OKCupid as an experiment. On Instagram, she has posted over 3,700 photos, with about a third of them selfies. “This does not include all the selfies that are exchanged within private messages, I’m sure that adds quite a portion more as well. I think I send my boyfriend a selfie a day. I will take many more selfies until I die, or until my youthful glow does.”
Face to face, I ask Stephanie, “How many hours each day do you spend on the computer?”
“I don’t know. That’s like asking me how many times I touch my face a day. People touch their phones all the time.”
Stephanie doesn’t have internet service at home, however, and she doesn’t own a television. She watches no news. “I can do without all the rageaholics and crazy debates. I don’t need these angry news articles. I have enough insanity in my own life. I don’t care about politics because nothing will change anyway. I believe that you should just do your own duty and be a decent human being. Observe the golden rule. Don’t be an asshole!”
There is also the issue of cost. Stephanie shops at thrift stores and pays only $550 a month for a one-bedroom apartment in Bella Vista. Her landlord, an old Italian lady, is an angel.
Stephanie lists some of her cultural heroes, “Sylvia Battaille. She was the wife of George Bataille and the lover of Jaques Lacan. She was an actress and a muse for Jean Renoir.
Susie Bubble. At the age of 12, she became a fashion blogger. She has a very unique sense of style. A Japanese, she was raised in London and also speaks French. She knows how to promote herself and brand herself. She has a clothing line. She’s very talented.
Caravaggio. I like all the jokes in his paintings.”
A violent homosexual, Caravaggio tried to castrate a love rival but merely killed him. As an example of painterly jokes, Stephanie cites Michelangelo’s self portrait on the Sistine Chapel ceiling as just flayed, meatless skin.
I ask Stephanie to name her political heroes, but she can’t think of any, so I say, “What about historical heroes?”
After a moment, she answers, “Ben Franklin.”
“Because he was a global celebrity, a myth, an archetype. He became bigger than life.”
In this internet age, image projection has become supremely important, and everybody is online all the time to document and promote themselves. Stephanie has 600 followers on Instagram, but she wants a zillion more. “When I was twenty, I thought I would be a lot more successful, but the recession happened.”
“You have to think that way if you want to become an artist,” I laugh. Though only scrapple, everyone starts out desperately thinking he’s hot shit. I studied painting in college, but never got a degree. “When I was twenty, I was convinced I was a genius!”
Stephanie laughs. “All the careers I ever wanted don’t exist anymore or I just can’t afford them, like being a professor. Everything crashed.”
“When I was twenty, I also thought that forty was old, and the forty-year-olds I knew, I thought I could outdo them soon enough. I dismissed them. So what’s old to you now, Stephanie?”
“Thirty?! But you’re twenty-nine!”
“Like most women, I fear being 30. I don’t know why. It’s that cultural pressure.”
I’ve been here several hours. Don is long gone. The only other customer is Jimmy. In this bar, the jukebox is often silent and the lone television, in the far back, is rarely loud enough to interrupt conversations. Jimmy likes to tell jokes. The other day, he said, “Why are aspirins white?”
“I don’t know, Jimmy. Why?”
“You want them to work, don’t you?”
Jimmy said a black guy told him that, so it’s all right.
Today, Jimmy has a new joke for Stephanie and I, “Two black guys are walking on South Street when they see a sign, ‘We’ll make you completely white for 99 cents.’ ‘Wow, man, that’s a great deal,’ they yell, but the problem is one guy has $1 and the other guy, only 98 cents. They talk it over and decide that the guy with a dollar would go in first. If it works, he can give the other guy a penny. After 15 minutes, he comes out and is completely white, so the other guy is like, ‘Wow, man, it really does work! Give me that penny!’” Anticipating the punchline, Jimmy is already laughing. “Ha, ha, but you know what the first guy says?”
“I don’t know, Jimmy. What does he say?”
“The first guy says, ‘You have to earn your own money, nigger! I’m not going to give you shit!’”
Seeing that I’m not getting it, Jimmy explains, “Now that he’s white, he’s not giving the black guy anything. It’s a joke about white people, man.”
“OK, OK, I got it,” but I’m only grinning slightly, just to be polite.
Miffed, Jimmy mutters, “I thought you guys were smart!” After downing his Bud, Jimmy goes back to work. Anastasi is expensive, so I’ve never eaten there.
Jimmy has a new apartment for only $350, but it’s in the heart of Point Breeze. When Stephanie lived there two years ago, she was attacked just outside her front door by a group of black kids about 12 years old. After throwing a rock at her head and knocking her down, they kicked her a few times as she curled up on the ground, then they scattered. “Just like that, it was over. All I could do was go inside and cry.”
On the internet, you can’t be mugged, raped, murdered, kissed, caressed or made love to. On the internet, you can just be words, and your typed voice can be as suave, sexy, witty, hip, vulnerable or belligerent as you feel like. On the internet, you don’t have to be ugly or old, and shit doesn’t stink. Repulsive or untouchable, you can craft an alluring internet voice. A duckmäuser, you can thunder like Nietszche. Online, you can shout the unspeakable.
The internet has given each of us a double life and abetted, to an insane degree, our hypocrisies. It has created a new humanity, one that’s more glib and indifferent while pretending to care about everything. For a disenfranchised and alienated population, the internet is the perfect pub, town hall, playground, luna park or sex party, except, of course, nothing happens beyond the excitable synapses inside your sad skull.
As our virtual universe expands, our actual world, country, city, neighborhood and even room shrink. Making faces or pulling our pants down for the stupid smart phones, we go online to vent and striptease for other exhibitionists. Why venture outside when everything is onscreen? The world has been flattened and shrunken to fit inside your tiny head. There is no more nation here, just a mess of headcases. While they rape us, we have virtual sex. With our fists between our legs, we can’t wave them at the man, much less fight back.
On the positive side, the internet has allowed many unorthodox opinions and dissident voices to be heard. Without the internet, I’d not have discovered Joe Bageant, Dmitri Orlov or John Michael Greer, and I wouldn’t have regular access to Paul Craig Roberts or James Howard Kunstler. On Yahoo!, each story about the economic recovery is greeted by a flood of jeering comments, so the internet has enabled this vox populi, though it’s shoved to the bottom. On balance, the internet has amplified the worst aspects of mainstream culture while giving alternative voices an illusion of relevance. On the internet, anyone can be a star the size of a zit. Just as Stephanie Potter has 600 followers, I have 600 readers from whom I endlessly beg. Meanwhile, the giant buffoons and puppets of the military banking complex, from Matt Bai to Kayne West, hog the main stage. Enslaved everywhere else, we can be free on the internet, but even there, we are corralled. Looking down to transmit or receive the latest trivia, we step into the accelerating traffic of history.
A paradox of the internet is that it’s disembodied yet extremely flesh oriented. Just think of all the nudity that’s uploaded by pros and amateurs. Even a church going, family oriented placid one can stare at an endless parade of naked humans and, if inclined, display his or her most bestial and pettable assets to the world and posterity. The net is swimming with genitals. Dare Dorm pays college students to record orgies. At Chaturbate, anyone can offer virtual peep shows to thousands of viewers for tips. The house takes half. We’re living in the Golden Age of Porn! This is the munificence of late trauma capitalism. No one will ever see so many cocks and cunts again. On top of peak oil, soil and water, this is also the age of peak self-love and peak masturbation. Snapping selfies, we climax alone.
In her college thesis paper, Stephanie writes, “I am interested in the Body and the Body displaced. This begins to address my dialectical net and physical selves, but also my scatological preoccupations. I am concerned with the refuse and its origin: the shit and the bowels, the cum and the glands, the user and the cookies, the artist and the masterwork. That which is both alive and dead.”
Emailing me, she elaborates, “Well, I guess sex has a lot to do with it… But, mostly that sentence was intentionally phrased as such to imply that shit and artists’ works are the same thing: a product which is filtered and changed through a vessel. We are all just a buncha bags of goo that make things.
I am pretty net-addicted. I often need to be reminded that my body exists. As of late, it’s been good about reminding me itself. I have a vengeful lower intestine, all-too-often periods, problem skin, and mundanely flat feet. Not to mention the fact that I work with a fading 70-year-old man everyday, his mortality becoming more and more evident. Especially when he insists on driving: in which case my mortality is up for question as well. This is the first time I have been so close to this kind of regression and it is incredibly potent.
More privately: the reoccurring bruises on the back of my thighs allude to a number of things, but above all: a reminder of my own corpse and the other who loves it.”
Let us end, then, with a Stephanie Potter hallucination, a poem about virtual sex. Though about pixels, it is so visceral, so unsatisfied yet so heated, an anthem for the age:
DICK PIC OPEN CALL
or: A Memory of the Players in a Mirror at Midnight
I love your fucking cock.
You well-equipped-filthy-vascular-monster, you.
What does a woman even say to that?
“I am incapacitated”
The type of gaping mouth that knows no language.
I used to be ashamed of masturbation. How naive? I mean, this is basic human shit we're talking about? Right? Rite?
The simple suggestion of anythingtodo with anythingtodo with that magnificent corpse of yours just makes me crazy anyway—but jesuschrist.
I wanna be fuckin drenched in you. Cum. Sweat. Salivate.
When you showed up on my feed, this mysterious non-body, a body w/o organs, your digital molting—how sick of me to be so enthralled by each posted dinner plate: knowing it’d just get all masticated and slide down that wide neck of yours. The runny-sunny egg catching in your beard just like the meal you’d made of me this morning.
I’d like to probe my index finger so far into the back of your mouth I could wrap my first knuckle around what was left of your impacted third molar.
Indulge me with all your drunken texts and ego pics of lonely erections. I’ll examine them as coroner examines corpse of what might have been. Hovering over my screen: breathing in the antilife and hollowed air.
I just gawked at that low res, blurry bathroom tease—for what seemed like a century—certainly for as much satisfaction I was gonna get from it. Just pinching my thumb and index in and out: the pixels pulsing and beating as I imagine our veins would—as our organs would. Touchsensitive. I wanna make it my home screen: make my passcode a trite 6-9-6-9. Soixante-neuf, soixante-neuf. My fingers sliding up/down on the viscosity of the screen: mimicking that kindof motion you might use on me. Might use on my cunt. Prodding in fascination like a resident gyno.
Your other wide paw somewhere near my trachea.
Fuck me Michael, I love you.
I just writhe in bed a while. Pressing my thighs together—gripping with my left hand at the ridge of my hipbone. The 5blankets + fresh laundry add some weight I can stretch to imagine is yours. Warm—fibers moving for and against the weave. I'm wearing a cotton v-neck (1of5: a convenient bulk pack). And grey tallsocks—pulled all the way up—cinching just above the inward curve at the back of the knee. No doubt leaving pink creases in skin: a fine place for you to stick your tongue—your mustache rubbing backward against the grain as your mouth closes on pale limb.
Tastebuds snailtrailing properly—that memory of grime device.
I finally settle on my back, as I always do, left leg stretched out downward toward the end of the mattress, the other bent and leafed off to the side like the back cover of a weak-spined book—something nostalgic. An antiquated tome: kindof like clandestine. Exposing oh, so, inner-right-side-of-right-thighbone—that peak of light and shadow—the one your four thick fingers and rigid thumb could wrap around in
The top hem of my quilt is soaked in drool and bile, stuffed insatiably passed gag.
Pouring out a rorschach of Ballard’s vaginal juices and Cronenberg prop mess that you might try to lap up like it’s all just predigested.
Takes nothing to plateau.
No more than 20seconds—no more than net fame.
I'm already sooo tuned in.
That unsolicited vulgarity—that dick-pic open call. Media massage ends with one loud whimper into bed dressing and I plunge two fingers inward/upward/backward.
Fermented mucus sprays with:
and the latent throb of orgasm clenches
at my index and middle.
Wishing it was you—your cock—your callused hand
—anywhere removed from handheld.
I breathe again.
Withdraw my pearled fingers,
stretch n crack,
examining the cum spiderwebbing between portions.